Abie’s Yiddish Muse

Abie’s Yiddish Muse

Like a lot of red revolutionaries, Abraham Cahan ended up to the right of where he began.


One evening in 1892, William Dean Howells received a caller at his house on East 17th Street. A former editor of The Atlantic Monthly, where he’d championed the work of his friend Mark Twain, as well as a celebrated poet, novelist and critic, Howells was the American literary establishment made flesh. His visitor was Abraham Cahan, editor of the Arbeiter Zeitung, an obscure Yiddish weekly named after the Chicago-based German anarchist paper whose staff had recently furnished four of the eight defendants in the Haymarket bombing trial. Although Cahan’s own literary efforts had so far mostly been limited to his columns “The Proletarian Preacher” and “The Hester Street Reporter,” he was thrilled to be invited to meet the author of The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes. Howells, who maintained a lively interest in the Lower East Side, was in turn astonished to learn that the man he’d sought out as a local informant—what today would be called a “fixer”—had read all of his work.

The following year, Cahan published excerpts of Howells’s utopian satire A Traveler From Altruria in the Arbeiter Zeitung and, with his mentor’s encouragement, completed his own first novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. Though Cahan’s manuscript was rejected by Harper’s and McClure’s—whose editor told Cahan, “Someone who reads your novel is likely to think there are no other kinds of people in America than Jews”—Howells persisted, sending it to his own editor, who’d already struck gold with Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane, another Howells discovery. He then wrote a rave review of both authors in the New York World, hailing Cahan as a new star of realism “who will do honor to American letters.”

Yet there was also an element of condescension in Howells’s praise. Reviewing the Lithuanian-born author’s next book, The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories (1898), he wondered whether Cahan would ever “pass beyond his present environment out into the larger American world, or will master our life as he mastered our language.” The answer came two decades later. The Rise of David Levinsky—note the hat tip in the title—blends elements of Cahan’s own childhood in Vilna, Talmudic training, youthful involvement with the Russian revolutionary underground and flight to America with his fictional alter-ego’s relentless climb to the top of the garment industry. Deemed an “artistic triumph” by Howells, the novel’s unsparing anatomy of bare-knuckles capitalism among the “cloak and suit” trade was more than some readers could stomach. The Nation’s anonymous reviewer, describing Levinsky as “a sneaking, malodorous animal [whose] fumblings with friendship and love are nauseating,” sniffed that if Cahan “has determined to paint that type of Jew who raises the gorge of all decent human beings, he has succeeded.” But most critics agreed with those nimble dialecticians at The New York Times Book Review, who (in a front-page review) announced: “In this story of ‘The Rise’ of one individual is pictured the development of an entire class.”

Today, both Cahan and his antihero are largely forgotten. Martin Amis recently informed the readers of the same Times Book Review that “Jewish-American literature…began with Saul Bellow, circa 1950.” Unlike those of us whose ancestors landed at Castle Garden or Ellis Island, Amis may not have been subject to parental recitations of “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, the nineteenth-century poet who probably qualifies as the mother of Jewish-American literature. But neither the ghetto pastorals of Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930) and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) nor Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952) are imaginable without Abraham Cahan, who if he had accomplished nothing beyond bringing David Levinsky into the world would still be worth remembering.

Cahan, however, kept his day job—or, rather, day jobs, since his career as a newspaperman grew out of his commitments as a revolutionary. Making his debut on Manhattan’s radical speaking circuit, Cahan hit upon the novel tactic of addressing the workers not in English (which few of them spoke) or German or Russian, the acknowledged languages of revolution, but in Yiddish. Prompted partly by Henry George’s 1886 New York mayoral campaign, Cahan abandoned anarchism for socialism, joining the Socialist Labor Party, where he found himself at odds with its contentious leader, Daniel De Leon. In 1897, Cahan left the Arbeiter Zeitung to start a new paper determined to “hold high the flag of international class conflict” and bearing the same name as the official organ of the German Social Democratic Party: Forverts, or the Forward.

Driven out after only a few months by staff infighting, and fired from his night-school English teacher’s job for making socialist street-corner speeches, Cahan soon got freelance work from Lincoln Steffens, at the time an assistant editor at the Evening Post and an admirer of Yekl. Steffens steered Cahan to the Commercial Advertiser, and when Steffens himself joined the paper, Cahan became part of his cadre of young reporters with literary ambitions. Steffens put Cahan on the police beat, where the pioneering muckraker Jacob Riis taught the newbie how to use cutting-edge technology to “phone in” a story. He stayed at the paper for five years, escorting Steffens and the writer Hutchins Hapgood (author of The Spirit of the Ghetto) through the city’s teeming Jewish quarter, but also interviewing President McKinley, lunching with “Buffalo Bill” Cody and, thanks to Steffens, meeting frequently with Theodore Roosevelt. By the time he returned to the Forward in 1902, Cahan knew everyone worth knowing in New York. But he was never provincial.

Before he’d even started at the Forward, Cahan journeyed to London to meet with Eleanor Marx and Friedrich Engels, who gave him permission to translate The Communist Manifesto into Yiddish. In 1912, he met Lenin in Krakow, though the encounter must have been only partially successful since, unlike Marx and Engels, whose terra-cotta busts still adorn the old Forward building, Lenin—and Leninism—were quickly consigned to the dustbin of history. Trotsky, however, was another story. Arriving in New York to a hero’s welcome in January 1917, he was immediately signed up by Cahan, though the new columnist’s insistence that, faced with a choice between internationalism and patriotism, Americans—“especially the Jewish American workers”—should choose internationalism probably would have got him fired if the czar’s abdication that March hadn’t allowed Trotsky to return to Russia.

* * *

Why am I telling you this? Because reading Seth Lipsky’s biography, it is all too easy to forget why anyone should care about Cahan, a serial espouser of lost causes who died more than half a century ago and whose monument, the Forward building on East Broadway—in the paper’s heyday, a hive of radical activity that housed the Workmen’s Circle and the United Hebrew Trades in addition to presses and editorial offices, and that also hosted weekly concerts and dances and a Yiddish theater troupe—is now a luxury condominium. In theory, Lipsky—who left a secure job at The Wall Street Journal in 1990 to start a weekly English-language edition of the Forward, and who went on to revive The New York Sun as a right-wing daily—ought to be an ideal match for his illustrious predecessor. At the Forward, Lipsky was known as an inspiring editor who serialized Art Spiegelman’s Maus II and nurtured writers who didn’t always share his politics. Yet as a biographer, Lipsky is small-minded, preachy, dull and inattentive, trampling over the twists and turns of Cahan’s often capricious political evolution in a rush to fit the epic contours of his unruly life into the cookie-cutter confines of wised-up American neoconservatism. Describing a 1923 speech denouncing Soviet Russia, Lipsky says: “with this speech, Cahan took his place within the leadership of an anti-Communist movement that would not be fully vindicated until 1989, nearly 40 years after Cahan’s death, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in the face of a three-pronged strategy led by President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Lane Kirkland.” (Lane Kirkland?!)

But then Lipsky also believes that the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which at its peak had nearly half a million members, was “the Forward’s arm in the labor movement.” And that Jay Lovestone, the American communist renegade who distributed CIA money to pliable labor leaders throughout Western Europe and Latin America, deserves much of the credit for the rise of Solidarity in Poland—a claim that might have come straight from the pages of the Workers Vanguard, circa 1982.

Identification with the subject is a biographer’s déformation professionnelle, a mostly harmless vice that sometimes frees a writer to make imaginative leaps beyond the bounds of archival evidence and strict citation. But Lipsky doesn’t really do empathy. When the young Cahan, seeking a route out of Russia, rejects Palestine as a possible destination, Lipsky writes: “Cahan was not yet ready to throw in his lot with the Zionists. He viewed himself as ‘first of all a socialist’”—thereby dismissing as a youthful error what remained, for Cahan, a lifelong commitment. Similarly, in describing Cahan’s bitter dispute with Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism—the ideological ancestor of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and a tendency denounced by Cahan as appealing to “extremist chauvinists”—Lipsky airbrushes Jabotinsky’s fascist sympathies, the better to embrace his “stark assessment of the coming struggle” with the Arabs.

As for Cahan’s dedication to socialism, “although I myself was never a socialist or a member of a labor union, I had great sympathy for labor and its long march,” Lipsky writes. “I had moved to the right over the years, and as the Jewish story began to assert itself in the last quarter of the twentieth century, I perceived Cahan and what he built at the Forward as taking on…a new relevance.” Lipsky’s own politics are not the problem—or, at least, not the whole problem—but when his search for a usable past leads him to cut his subject down to his own size, readers have reason to complain. Especially since Lipsky seems to think that Cahan’s anticommunism is the most interesting thing about him.

* * *

Like a lot of red revolutionaries, Cahan ended up to the right of where he began. What makes any of those journeys worth writing about isn’t the terminus, though, but the choices that were faced—and the scenery along the way. As the historian Yuri Slezkine notes in The Jewish Century, “in the early twentieth century, Jews had three options—and three destinations—that represented alternative ways of being modern.” Zionists went to Palestine. Capitalists—and lumpen refugees—went to America. Socialists stayed in Russia. As a young member of the terrorist Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will), Cahan fled to America only after many in his cell had been arrested in the crackdown that followed the assassination of Alexander II. His aim was to build “a wonderful communist life in that far-off country, a life without ‘mine’ and ‘thine.’” Visiting Russia years after his break with Lenin, Cahan sought out the Narodnik Vera Figner, who introduced the American to her Soviet comrades as “one of us.”

To say that Cahan became an anticommunist tells us nothing; the same could be said of anyone who preferred the Forward to the Freiheit (including my grandparents). Likewise any of the schnorrers, schleppers and tummlers assembled at the Garden Cafeteria (now the Wing Shoon seafood restaurant)—except, possibly, when Fidel Castro came for lunch. What matters, rather, is how and why his views changed—and what kind of anticommunist he became.

As the editor of the paper whose “Bintel Briefs” were read more avidly by many more union members than the Daily Worker, and as a power himself in the garment unions, Cahan’s own story is bound up with the saga of organized labor. Cahan, Lipsky writes, “had stood with labor throughout its great awakening and the years during which it was being organized, but he had broken early with the hard-left factions and played a leading role in the long struggle against Communism.” It’s true that Cahan played a prominent, honorable—and, for that matter, radical—role in helping to organize the needle trades in New York City. But labor’s “awakening” in the United States predated Cahan’s arrival in 1882, and despite what Lipsky appears to believe, the main battles between unions in the garment industry had little to do with ideology. David Dubinsky, who led the ILGWU—and was very close to Cahan—was an anticommunist. But so was Sidney Hillman, leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, who didn’t like or trust Cahan. Yet Hillman and Dubinsky joined Cahan to form the American Labor Party—whose sole congressman, East Harlem Representative Vito Marcantonio (formerly Fiorello La Guardia’s campaign manager), was a frequent ally of the Communist Party—so that New York’s workers could back the New Deal without supporting Tammany Hall.

Then there is the language question. As a revolutionary, Cahan spoke the workers’ language, which in the early twentieth century on the Lower East Side meant Yiddish. And, of course, the Forward was written in Yiddish—but a peculiar kind of Yiddish, filled with neologisms and Americanisms, completely disdainful of any notion of linguistic purity. Even the name Forverts shuns the literal Foroys in order to echo its German socialist forebear. Cahan’s biographer isn’t required to speak Yiddish—though I couldn’t help thinking of Paul Buhle, a non-Jew who learned it at a relatively advanced age in order to better understand his subjects when compiling his oral history of the American left. But you don’t need much Yiddishkeit to wonder what it meant for Cahan to conduct his political and journalistic life in Yiddish while writing his novels in English. One clue is provided by Slezkine, who quotes a passage from Cahan’s autobiography, The Education of Abraham Cahan, saying that his Yiddish-speaking childhood lacked names for common flowers such as daisies or dandelions: “When I grew older I learned their Russian names and, in America, their English names. But in that early time we didn’t even know their Yiddish names. We called all of them ’tchatchkalech,’ playthings.” What did Yiddish mean for a man whose fictional alter-ego retained “a lurking fear of restaurant waiters”? Lipsky never asks.

Nor does he seem curious about why Cahan’s wife Anna, who translated his other stories into Russian, refused even to read The Rise of David Levinsky. He tells us that in Cahan’s memoirs he “devoted remarkably few words to her,” and that he wrote more warmly about a girl who served as his tour guide on a single visit to Paris. He also says that the Cahans “lived separately for a while.” But he takes at face value the claim, by a crony of Anna’s, that she objected to Levinsky’s “all-rightnik” vulgarity, without considering whether the character’s incessant womanizing might have been more relevant. As a member of precisely that cohort whom Isaac Babel exhorted to “forget for a while that you have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart,” Cahan may have had a genuinely happy marriage—and a vivid imagination. The point is that his inner life remains opaque. Neither here nor elsewhere is there any indication, in the book’s admirably clear endnotes, that Lipsky ever made any attempt to investigate any primary source, on any topic, beyond the two volumes (out of five) of Cahan’s memoirs that were translated into English.

And when it comes to the Socialist Party’s interminable internecine battles, Lipsky really loses his grip. “By 1934,” he writes, “a rift had developed within the Socialist Party: a radical and pacifist faction had developed, led by Norman Thomas, that unlike the Forward was prepared to work with various affiliates and fronts for the Communist Party.” What Lipsky neglects to mention is that the other faction—the right wing of the party—tried to seize control of the party’s assets. In his memoirs Louis Waldman, the leader of this “Old Guard,” reveals what was at stake: “In New York alone there were such institutions as the Jewish Daily Forward…with reserve funds amounting to millions…. There was the Rand School of Social Science which, together with Camp Tamiment, had enormous property value…. Control of the Forward alone also meant probable control of fraternal and labor organizations such as the Workmen’s Circle, with its many millions of dollars in property.”

Lipsky contrasts Cahan with B. Charney Vladeck, the Forward’s longtime general manager: “Vladeck was, at bottom, a politician; Cahan was, at bottom, a newspaper editor.” Unlike Vladeck, who served a term as a city alderman (elected on the Socialist ticket) and later won election to the City Council on the American Labor Party line, Cahan never held public office. But he was every bit as much of a politician. Perhaps it’s just that Lipsky finds something embarrassing about Cahan’s politics.

* * *

Lipsky wants Cahan to be a winner. It’s not enough for the Forward to have been the leading Yiddish publication in the world (which it was). It has to be “the third-largest morning newspaper in the city in any language, with a circulation of nearly 140,000,” right behind “Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s Journal“—making Cahan a peer of those newspaper legends. Except that even at its peak, the Forward never equaled The New York Times, which had a circulation of 240,000 before World War I and over 360,000 in 1918. A similar grandiosity leads him to describe Jabotinsky as “the only Jewish journalist of [Cahan’s] own rank” at a time (1940) when Walter Winchell had a nightly audience of millions, and when J. David Stern—who owned daily papers in New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey—employed George Seldes and I.F. Stone. (And, of course, when Arthur Hays Sulzberger inherited what was even then probably the best newspaper in the country—though as an old Journal man, Lipsky seems to have a broyges with the Times.)

Cahan backed the Russian populists over the Bolsheviks, the American Socialists over the Communists, and the Yiddish nationalists over the Zionists, making him a washout as a prophet in three languages. For most of his life, Cahan remained stubbornly out of step with the mainstream—at least if your sense of the mainstream is bounded on the left by empty liberal pieties and on the right by the wisdom of Robert Bartley. Yet as writers with politics as diverse as Paul Berman and Alan Wald have reminded us, Jewish revolutionaries for whom winning was everything tended to embrace Stalinism. Or neoconservatism. Or both. Abraham Cahan is far more interesting than that. It’s a shame that Lipsky seems more eager to recruit him than to understand him.

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